NEW ORLEANS - Opposing coaches may as well incinerate game film of the Saints’ dreadful 0-4 start. The team in those clips ceased to exist a month ago.
Drew Brees threw for 445 yards and three touchdowns, and Mike McKenzie returned an interception 75 yards for a score as New Orleans won its fourth straight, 41-24 over the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday.
Now all the preseason hype seems a little more justified as the Saints (4-4) have become legitimate contenders in the NFC South again, only a half-game behind division-leading Tampa Bay (5-4). This latest victory over Jacksonville (5-3) was the Saints’ most impressive, given the quality of the opponent. The Saints also proved they can indeed play with the AFC, against which they were 0-5 since beating Cleveland on opening day of the 2006 season.
“An 0-4 start is going to do one of two things to you,” said Brees, who helped the Saints tie a team record with 32 first downs, 25 on pass plays. “It’s either going to throw you in the tank or it’s going to give you an edge. ... It’s only made us stronger. It’s only made us tougher mentally, and now we’re in a position where we’re hardened a little bit. We’ve been tested a little bit and we’ve fought through it, and now’s our time to make that jump.”
Brees’ 35 completions on 49 attempts without an interception were impressive enough. Reggie Bush wasn’t bad, either, scoring touchdowns on a short run and a short reception. He gained 115 total yards, surpassing the 100-yard mark for the third time in four games.
Brees’ other scoring passes went to Lance Moore and David Patten. Marques Colston had 10 catches for 159 yards.
“I’d say the swagger is back,” Brees said. “We’ve got a good thing going ... but by no means have we accomplished anything yet. That’s something we need to realize.”
The Jaguars, by contrast, need to get some players healthy and others in line behaviorally before this stretch of two losses in three games gets worse.
Quinn Gray, starting his second game for injured David Garrard (ankle), opened well, but his performance dipped after he sprained his left ankle on a hit by Will Smith early in the second quarter. He finished 20-for-33 for 354 yards and two touchdowns, but was intercepted three times.
“I had a couple of miscues, a couple of wrong routes, a bad throw that led to the pick that got returned to the house,” said Gray, who added that his ankle sprain “obviously hurt.”
“I’ll be back strong for next week,” he said.
Some of his teammates may not be.
“It’s time for us to regroup,” running back Fred Taylor said. “I don’t want to talk about what happened to the other guys who didn’t make it here. We went out there and played with who we had and we just didn’t get it done.”
When New Orleans blew coverage on Gray’s 80-yard TD pass to Reggie Williams, it was among only a few plays reminiscent of the early season Saints, whose secondary gave up several long touchdowns passes.
Another was Maurice Jones-Drew’s 100-yard kickoff return that tied the game at 14 in the second quarter.
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